One of the most useful things you can do to finish writing your novel (or short story, or screenplay, or whatever you’re working on) is to truly make writing a daily habit. Unfortunately, making writing a daily habit is also one of the hardest things to do.
My book The Organised Writer is designed to help you achieve this goal, by removing obstacles between you and your writing and helping you focus better. Here are two simple steps to get you started.
Some deadlines are set for us, or at least negotiated in advance, by editors and publishers. But if you’re starting out, or working on a personal project, you won’t have a deadline. That can be a real problem when it comes to motivating yourself, because who cares how long it takes?
I’m as prone to this as anyone — which is why I set deadlines for myself, even on personal projects. During this year’s lockdown I decided to write a new spec novel, so set myself a loose deadline of ‘end of August’ to finish the first draft. I had a commissioned job scheduled to start in September, which gave me a convenient endpoint, and I knew I could write enough each day to hit that deadline.
As it happened, I ran over a little and finished a week later. But without that deadline I might still be tinkering away at it now. Having a date, even a loose one, helped me focus on writing the draft every day as surely as if an editor was waiting for it.
How did I know I could write enough every day to hit my self-imposed deadline? Well, I’ve been doing this a long time so I know my own pace and habits. I write at the same time every day, and I know what word count I can reliably hit during those hours.
You may not know that about yourself, especially when starting out. You also may not be able to sit at your desk for hours every day like I do! A simple trick is to figure out what time you can spare, and start small. Perhaps you only have half an hour each day to write. Don’t beat yourself up over it; what matters is that however much you can find, however you can find it, you commit to making that your daily writing time.
The next step is to set yourself a word count target to hit within that time. Start with something relatively easy, like 200 words. Anyone can write 200 words in half an hour, can’t they? Even if you’re having a bad day, you can probably force that much out — to the point that you might ask, is it really enough?
Yes, it is. Even if that’s all you write — 200 words a day, every weekday — a year from now you’ll have written 48,000 words. And let’s be honest, most days you’re probably going to write more. Suppose that every other day you manage 400 words. Still hardly a marathon, is it? But this time, when you look back in a year, you’ll have finished a 72,000-word novel.
The key to making this work is to remember that it’s a daily minimum. You might have a day when you really fly, and write 1,000 words. That’s fantastic… but tomorrow you must return to your desk, begin a new session, and write another 200 words or more. That’s how the work gets done.
As time goes on you may realise you consistently write more than 200 words; or perhaps you can spare more than half an hour to begin with. If you want to, go ahead and increase your daily word count. But be careful not to set yourself goals you can’t reliably hit. Better to exceed a low target every day; that’s how you remain motivated, and experience the joy of making real progress.
Antony Johnston is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author and creator of The Coldest City, adapted to film as Atomic Blonde starring Charlize Theron. He has authored more than 40 graphic novels and comic book series, a dozen video games, four novels, more than 120 podcast episodes and his work has been translated throughout the world. In 2007 Antony posted an online essay on the subject of productivity and how he organised his working space and writing life; half a million hits later, he realised that he was not alone in wanting to establish better habits to allow more time to write effectively. He lives and works in England — and he is very organised. @AntonyJohnston | antonyjohnston.com | organised-writer.com